Sunday, November 20, 2011

A Rare "Pearl" -- Autistic Services Student Re-Imagines Classic Portrait

Little is known about 17th century Dutch painter Johannes Vermeer, who left a legacy of about 35 paintings, or of the identity of The Girl with a Pearl Earring, the subject of his 1665 masterwork of the same name.

Vermeer's portrait shows a porcelain skinned young woman cast against a solid black background, as she glances toward us over her left shoulder. She wears a modest smock accented by a simple headband and a pearl earring. She could be a relative, neighbor, or friend to Vermeer.

Fourteen-year-old Ben Brauen, a student at Autistic Services Inc. of Williamsville, NY, recently re-imagined the classic work on a giant 4-foot canvas. In his interpretation, which became the centerpiece of a month-long exhibition at the Albright Knox Art Gallery in Buffalo, Ben recasts the subject as an African American beauty, positioned amid a celebration of primary and secondary colors.

In its modest way, Ben's painting has become as intriguing as Vermeer's original — a rare work of art that satisfies aesthetically while sparking lively dialog about its subject and artist.

"It looks a lot like my grandmother when she was younger," says Ben's mother, Stephanie. "Ben's maternal great-grandmother's heritage is with Bahamian slaves who ended up with the Seminoles in Florida, and the Blackfeet Native American tribe. Ben may have internalized the stories she's told of her heritage, and this came out in the painting. Ben is very intelligent and very close to his great grandmother, even though he has limited verbal skills."

Diagnosed with Autism at a young age, Ben attends school at Autistic Services five days a week. The agency offers educational and quality of life programs to help people with Autism learn to function in a society that was never tailored to them. Approaching Autism as a culture that has much to contribute, Autistic Services attempts to provide a platform for artists to express themselves to their communities through its Arts Work program.

"The philosophy of the art program and the agency as a whole is to celebrate what's there, not to 'fix' something," says Autistic Services Teaching Artist Dana Ranke, Ben's art teacher. "The most meaningful part is that Ben is engaged in an art-making process he has chosen, and that he is at peace while he is drawing and painting. Art is purely an outlet for Ben to express his gift."

Dana has worked with Ben for three years, and says, "it was evident from day one by the way that he handled paint, his use of textures, and his bold shapes that his work was very special."

For his take on The Girl with a Pearl Earring, Ben used an overhead projector to magnify Vermeer's original onto a oversized canvas, where he penciled a general outline of the features that served as a foundation for his work, which he would bring to life using bright acrylic paints.

"He just took it and ran with it," Dana explains. "It was fun watching it evolve. It just wowed everyone. There was something new every day."

Dana selected Ben's finished painting as the featured piece for the Arts Work for Autistic Services exhibition at the Albright Knox Art Gallery, which included works by 16 student artists from the school during its September 1-28 run. Ben's piece was also used in all advertising for the event, including being featured in Artvoice, Buffalo's leading weekly publication covering arts and entertainment.

"I am just so darn proud of him, and remember when he was four," says Jody Dumbleton, a service coordinator for The Arc of Livingston-Wyoming who has worked with Ben for more than 10 years. "I've had the opportunity to see him grow and develop, even with sensory and other challenges. Creating artwork appears to be soothing and calming for Ben, and a powerful avenue for his self expression."

As with the original Vermeer work, it might be difficult to pin down Ben's inspiration. But according to his dad, the piece accomplishes much more than that, by providing meaningful insight into his son's creative abilities.

"All I can say is that I've never seen him create anything before that's quite like it," says Ben, Sr., whose Arcade, NY apartment walls are adorned with images of cars and comic book heroes colored by his son. "Ben loves to color, and he has always had an artistic side, but the Pearl Earring portrait is the best that I've ever seen him do."
Vermeer's 1665 masterwork
Ben Brauen's interpretation

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